Campaign Notebook: What Voters Want, One Year Out

by NBC News Political Unit /  / Updated 

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.

With just about one year left to go in the 2016 presidential election, the NBC News Political Unit asked the network's campaign embeds to help us learn more about what Americans want from the next commander-in-chief.

Recent polling suggests that one sentiment is overwhelmingly animating voters as they evaluate presidential candidates: Anger at a political system they believe is leaving them behind. The latest NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll showed that nearly seven in 10 Americans express anger at the political status quo, with 77 percent of Democratic primary voters and 63 percent of Republican primary voters agreeing.

But the numbers crunched by pollsters can't offer the same three-dimensional view that our own reporters can by relaying what Americans have to say in person about the 2016 race, day after day.

Campaign embeds have one of the most grueling jobs in journalism; they travel every day of the week and work exceptionally long hours to cover events all over the country. In their travels, they meet many different kinds of voters from diverse backgrounds, and they spend most of their time far outside the DC and New York bubbles where many political pundits reside.

Here's what they had to report.

Danny Freeman (based in Iowa)

Some voters want a political revolution. Some want to set fire to Washington, D.C. Some want a tested name and figure. And some want to be a part of making history (which means different things to different people). But one thing is clear ahead of the rapidly approaching Iowa Caucuses: voters from both parties are simply still getting to know their candidates, and they haven't made up their minds.

Iowans pride themselves on kicking the tires of each candidate before making their voices heard on a cold night in February. They listen and they pay attention. They sometimes drive hours to hear a candidate speak and shake the hopeful's hand. So while journalists, pundits and thought leaders distinguish between frontrunners and also-rans, on the ground, this is still anybody's race.

Two things to pay attention to in the coming weeks: organization and electricity.

Look for campaigns aggressively seizing opportunities to rally supporters early, and watch those who are taking voter organization seriously. Feel for the electricity in a room when a candidate enters. Keep an eye out for moments with undeniable rawness that transcends the conventional wisdom.

Alex Jaffe (national reporter)

Colorful outsiders — real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump and self-avowed Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders — have surged, fueled by a populist, anti-Washington sentiment that makes it difficult to predict with any certainty who's next.

Their supporters often sound alike. They express anger with the status quo and say their patience with political correctness has run out. They want a fighter, and Trump and Sanders are ready to box.

But some other voters say that feeling a connection with the candidate trumps other attributes. On the Republican side, many have looked to Ben Carson as their pick, saying the retired neurosurgeon's controversial comments don't matter, because, simply, they like the guy.

As more voters tune in, political gravity may take hold, with establishment contenders with more political experience eventually coming out on top. But if the first six months of this cycle are any indication, America's in for a wild ride through November.

Monica Alba (following Hillary Clinton)

Voters are craving duality.

At the same time, they want a candidate who can answer tough questions on ISIS and a candidate who can laugh at themselves; a candidate who can shine in a debate and at a diner; a candidate who's presidential and yet can effortlessly step out of their comfort zone and reflect something relatable.

The week after Hillary Clinton debuted as Val the Bartender on Saturday Night Live, that's all I heard about from her supporters. I'd ask them about the email controversy and her upcoming Benghazi testimony, and all they wanted to talk about was Val.

The voters I've encountered are also eager to get attention for their local issues on the national stage. Substance abuse, for example, comes up again and again in a state like New Hampshire. And the discussion gets results; the groundswell has translated to actual time candidates spend talking about the issue on the trail and beyond.

Another overwhelming sentiment I've noticed is that voters feel they can be heard beyond their vote if they attend an event and actually speak to a candidate. That facetime is priceless to voters and they want as much of it as possible before making up their minds.

Oh, and they want selfies. Lots of selfies.

Ali Vitali (following Donald Trump)

Among Americans who come to see Donald Trump – be it for the celebrity, the politics, or some mix of both – the recurring theme is that they're fed up.

Some have always been involved in the political process but have now given up on the establishment they once trusted; others are only just now feeling included in a process that used to leave them feeling apathetic or marginalized. But all of these people claim that career politicians, The Establishment, and anyone they feel is too “in” with the Washington DC crowd just aren't getting it done anymore.

These voters want pragmatic solutions from a straight-talking messenger who doesn't just promise change, but makes them believe it can actually happen.

That doesn't just mean they're looking for the trio that the press has termed “the outsiders” – Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, Trump – though those names do often come up among this crowd. These Americans want candidates with ideas and personalities they can relate and aspire to; be it Trump's “he says what we all feel” bombast, Carson's proven brilliant mind, or Cruz's passion, faith and ferocity in the face of an ideological challenge. They want to feel a personal connection with someone who channels their anger, frustration, and even disgust at the current state of America's political system.

In terms of policy specifics, many voters I interact with aren't yet concerned that many candidates are waiting to fill in the blanks until Election Day draws closer. Yes, they want the policies, but they're happy -- for now -- being energized by fierce rhetoric and enthusiastic stump speeches.

Another common thread is deep distrust of the media. Many GOP voters say that the press attends Republican candidates' events not to report what's happened, but to spin a narrative that is unfavorable to their candidate or party.

Kailani Koenig (based in New Hampshire)

All candidates courting New Hampshire voters face sincere, serious, and thought-out questions from residents at intimate town halls from Berlin to Salem. Republican and Democratic candidates alike travel to restaurants in Plymouth, business tours in Nashua, gun ranges in Keene, NASCAR races in Loudon, seafood festivals in Portsmouth, and beyond. The state is notoriously known for its Independent-minded voters, and which party's primary those voters decide to cast their ballots in will ultimately shift the direction of results for both contests. They like to vote in the primary where the action is.

Voters look for specifics, too, asking questions about ISIS and America's national security interests, immigration issues, and education and student loans. Voters want to know what can be done about the state's enduring heroin epidemic. The state has a high population of veterans, and questions about veterans' care are consistently asked, too. It takes a lot to impress a New Hampshire voter, and although many see and meet multiple candidates at numerous appearances, they aren't worried about making up their mind until the very last minute.

Vaughn Hillyard (based in Iowa)

In Iowa, folks take politics personally, from local ethanol standards to the Iran nuclear deal. Well-read and prepared to ask thought-out questions of candidates, Iowans take genuine pride in the responsibility of being the first to weigh in on the Republican and Democratic fields. They're looking for someone who sticks to his or her word—along the road, I often talk to voters who point out the respect they have for a candidate in the other party because of that contender's conviction in his or her beliefs.

What makes the campaign trail a place of enlightenment for the press—and the candidates—is the intimacy with which voters here allow you to enter their lives. From the apple orchards of Jefferson to the grain elevators of Alden, Iowans—Republicans and Democrats—want to explain the cheers and struggles of their daily lives. It's Iowa. It's the heart of learning—for press and the candidates—about the people.

Shaquille Brewster (following Republican candidates)

From Texas to Arkansas to Colorado, personalities matter. Voters notice Donald Trump's strong and commanding personality. For Fiorina, it's her sharp rhetoric; for Carson, his wisdom and faith.

In this race, a candidate's political resume — while not necessarily a negative— is largely disregarded, seen as unnecessary or irrelevant.

Republican voters are also largely happy with their field and their options. While they can zero in on a single candidate if asked, most still recite three or four names of candidates they say they would be excited to support. And while there is genuine disagreement among GOP voters about the type of candidate to best get the job done, their near-universal unifying vow is that Hillary Clinton should not win the White House.

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.